Parenting and Spirituality: Can There Be Harmony?

Originally printed in the March - April 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Hebert, Barbara. "Parenting and Spirituality: Can There Be Harmony?." Quest  90.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2002):44-47, 63.

By Barbara B. Hebert

Theosophical Society - Barbara B. Hebert currently serves as president of the Theosophical Society in America.  She has been a mental health practitioner and educator for many years.Parenting is not a subject discussed very often in Theosophical circles, yet many Theosophists are parents. Perhaps the lack of discussion is due to a seeming dichotomy between spirituality and parenting. When I think of someone who is spiritual, I imagine a person sitting quietly and meditating, centered in the midst of strife and difficulties, studying the ancient wisdom, and contemplating metaphysical truths. When I think of a parent, I visualize someone falling asleep while trying to meditate, too busy to sit quietly, living with strife and difficulties (without being centered), and whose only contact with what is ancient is the way the parent feels at the end of a long day. Are spirituality and parenting dichotomous? Or can they come together?

Kahlil Gibran writes:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with
His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Gibran speaks to the hearts of parents who recognize the spirituality inherent in their children and in themselves. His words touch a cord within many who desire to raise their children in an environment filled with harmony and an understanding of the universality of all life, who desire to provide opportunities by which their children can fulfill their dharma. Yet, Gibran's words, though beautiful as well as thought-provoking, may not always speak to parents involved in the nitty-gritty details of everyday life.

Think of an advertisement in a newspaper's help-wanted pages:

Wanted: Strong multi-tasked individual who can fulfill the duties of housekeeper, cook, nurse, and chauffeur. Must be able to mediate arguments, fights, and disagreements at all hours of the day and night. Individual must be willing to repeat instructions, stories, rules, etc. ad infinitum. Must place own life on hold to cater to needs of others. No vacation, no time off, hours are 24/7. No pay.

In the experience of many people, that advertisement describes parenting more realistically than does Gibran. Does such experience explain why parenting and spirituality are seldom discussed together? Is it impossible to be spiritual while also being chief cook and bottle washer, mediating arguments, and wishing for a night of undisturbed sleep, all at the same time? Or can we bring together both Gibran's words and the reality of parenting?

Parenting is in fact applied Theosophy, applied spirituality. Parenting presents us with an opportunity to grow spiritually by focusing on aspects of ourselves that may otherwise go "unscrubbed" for several lifetimes. Through parenting we face the internal struggle of wanting to live a spiritual life. We face the internal struggle of wanting to be the best possible parent for these children who are, as Gibran says, not our children, who have their own karmic lessons to learn and their own dharma to fulfill. And we face the internal struggle of realizing that we are less than the perfect spiritual beings and perfect parents we wish to be.

As parents, we struggle daily with our own needs and wants—spiritually, psychologically, and physically—and we likewise struggle with our children, as they strive to meet their own needs and wants. We do not want to hinder their individuality or stifle their psycho-spiritual growth; yet, on the other hand, we are the parents who need to set boundaries to provide a safe environment. We want our children to grow into loving, compassionate, caring individuals, but how do we encourage such qualities? Is there a way for us to become parents who manage to walk the razor-edged path of providing a healthy psycho-spiritual environment for our children while living in the "real world"?

Diana Baumrind, a social scientist and researcher, has created a model of parenting styles that addresses the issue of parenting in a psycho-spiritual sense. She looks at two primary factors: (1) the demands that the parent makes on the child (including expectations for appropriate, mature behavior, requirements for being a part of the family as a whole, willingness to confront the child if necessary, and willingness to discipline the child) and (2) the responsiveness of the parent to the needs of the child (including the encouragement of independence, assertiveness, and self-regulation by the child). Using these two factors of demandingness and responsiveness, Baumrind identifies four different parenting styles: indulgent, authoritarian, authoritative, and uninvolved.

Indulgent parents (who are also called permissive or nondirective) tend to demand little of their child while being very responsive. These parents are lenient with the child, allowing much self-regulation and requiring little maturity on the part of the child. Indulgent parents tend to avoid confrontation with their child. They have few rules and provide very little structure. These parents encourage their children to make their own rules. They are inclined to say, "I'm not going to raise my children with all those stupid rules my parents gave me!"

Authoritarian parents tend to be highly demanding and directive, but they are not very responsive to the needs of the child. They are parent-centered and expect their instructions to be obeyed without question or explanation. Authoritarian parents tend to be controlling and rigid in their rules and expectations. In other words, authoritarian parents are most likely to say, "It's my way or the highway, young person." Children who grow up in that sort of environment are rarely allowed to create their own rules and structure, a restriction that may cause difficulty when the children find themselves in a situation with no clear directives.

Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. These parents impart clear rules and structure, but they are not restrictive. They encourage assertiveness and independence on the part of the child as well as responsible and appropriately self-regulated behavior. They are neither child-centered nor parent-centered. The focus of the authoritative parent is on the needs of the family as a whole. Authoritative parents create rules and structure that provide a feeling of well-being and security for the child. Authoritative parents are also willing to discuss rules with the child, to compromise in certain situations, and to allow the child some latitude in creating rules when the child is mature enough to do so. These parents expect the child to participate with the family as a whole and to recognize the needs of other family members as well. Family meetings or discussions are frequently an integral aspect of authoritative parenting.

Finally, the uninvolved parents are neither demanding nor responsive. Parents who are uninvolved generally provide no structure, discipline, or supervision for their children. In the worst-case scenario, these parents may even neglect or reject their children. Frequently these children feel abandoned.

Baumrind's model of parenting styles can be extended into a more spiritual dimension. Parents who are committed to a spiritual way of life want their children to be assertive, independent, and able to regulate themselves and their behavior. They want their children to experience success, not necessarily in a strongly material sense (although most parents will surely agree that it is important for children to be able to support themselves when they are grown). They want their children to grow, learn, and expand their horizons. Baumrind's model of parenting can supply guidelines to help parents reach these goals—and thus to serve as Gibran's stable bow.

A great deal of research has investigated these parenting styles (as the references at the end of this article indicate). This research indicates that the parenting style with the best impact on children is the authoritative one, which impacts the academic, social, and psychological well being of children in positive ways. With its consistent rules and boundaries, its attention to both demandingness and responsiveness, and its emphasis on the attainment of assertiveness, independence, and self-regulation, authoritative parenting seems to provide a strong environment of stability and safety for the child, thus allowing parents to be Gibran's stable bow.

One of the most important aspects of authoritative parenting, as well as of spiritual parenting, is to impart clear and consistent rules and structure to children. A lack of rules means a lack of boundaries. A lack of boundaries means a lack of safety. Most of us at some time have found ourselves not knowing what was going to happen next or what we were expected to do. Do you remember the anxiety it produced? The same is true for children.

A two-year-old needs rules and boundaries—not to run into a busy street or touch a hot stove. These rules are for the child's safety. As the child grows, clear and consistent rules and boundaries continue to provide a safe and stable environment. And as the child matures, it is reasonable to encourage discussion and negotiation regarding rules. In this way, we can slowly help our children learn to regulate their own behavior, and that learning has a positive impact on their self-esteem.

Being honest and open with the child about our feelings allows the child to have a clearer understanding of the world. Talking and—most important—listening to our children, thus allowing them to become a part of the decision-making process (within carefully structured boundaries), clearly signals that the parent perceives the child as a valued individual, a person whose opinion is important. These messages and their inherent impact are exactly what we strive to impart as spiritual parents.

Certainly, it seems very simple to have clear boundaries, to be consistent, to allow our children to participate in decision-making, to talk and listen to our children in order to impart valuable messages. However, the reality is not quite that simple. A few examples of authoritative parenting may be useful. Your 12-year-old daughter wants to go to the movies with friends. She asks you to pick her up thirty minutes after the movie ends. She explains that she wants to visit with her friends after the movie. Many parents may be uncomfortable with this scenario. A discussion of the pros and cons of the situation is reasonable. You and your daughter may decide to compromise and allow her to stay for fifteen minutes after the movie has ended provided she does not leave the front of the movie theater.

In another example, your ten-year-old son wants to spend the night with a friend whose parents do not supervise as well as you would prefer. You do not allow him to do so. Discussing this issue with your child, specifically your concerns about the kind of difficulties that may ensue because of the lack of supervision, as well as specifically naming your fear of his being hurt or getting in trouble, is not only appropriate, but clarifies for your child that decisions are made for his safety. Discussion and possible compromise allow the child to begin to learn self-regulation. Rules, structure, consistency, discussion, and compromise are important aspects of parenting and of providing an environment for our children that not only feels but actually is safe and secure.

Living in a stable environment that is safe and secure allows children the freedom to assert their independence. Consciously or unconsciously, children know that the boundaries are provided in order to protect them. Therefore, they are willing to venture forth, knowing that their parents are providing an invisible safety net in case they fall. They learn how to make good decisions. They learn to express all aspects of their personality and to develop into the Self they are meant to become. It is from their decisions and possible mistakes—underlain by the safety and security that we provide—that our children learn and grow into Gibran's swift arrow. It is from providing an environment that is stable and safe that we become the stable bow. Our children meet their dharma as we meet ours.

Do our children fight rules and structures? Of course. Will they use every argument and manipulation they can to change our minds? Absolutely. Do they want the rules and structure? Surprisingly yes, although they will not admit it until they are adults. The boundaries—along with the discussion, the negotiation, and the compromise—provide the safe environment from which our children proceed forth into Gibran's "house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams." Through consistent authoritative parenting, we can meet the spiritual and psychological needs of both our children and ourselves. Being both demanding of our children and responsive to their needs provides the framework through which they can flower into the unique individuals they are meant to become. It is through boundaries, discussion, negotiation, and compromise that we begin to bring together both the realities of the daily struggle of parenting and the beauty of being the stable bow that sends our children forth.



Diana. "Current Patterns of Parental Authority." Developmental Psychology 4(1971): 1–103.


"The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Use." Journal of Early Adolescence 11 (1991): 56–95.


"Rearing Competent Children." In Child Development Today and Tomorrow, ed. W. Damon, 349–78. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Barbara B. Hebert, MEd, LPC, is a third-generation Theosophist who has been a member of theTheosophical Society for more than twenty-five years. She has worked as a staff member at both Olcott, the national center of the Theosophical Society in America (where her oldest son, Jason, was born) and at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy (where her youngest son, Chad, was born). Barbara works as a school counselor and a licensed professional counselor in Covington, Louisiana.